5G is coming in 2019: Here's what hospitals should know about it

The technology could improve connectivity of IoT devices in the healthcare sector, but policies and standards must evolve to allow the tech to reach its full potential.
By Jessica Davis
11:25 AM
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5G network

Qualcomm headquarters in San Diego. Photo via Wikipedia

Last week, Qualcomm announced that it has created a working 5G chip and completed its first test of 5G connectivity on a mobile device. The news follows similar announcements from Ericsson and Orange, Sprint and T-Mobile, which point to the industry steadily pushing a transition from 4G to 5G.

And Nokia just recently said it’s bringing 4.5G Pro to mobile providers, with a plan for 4.9Gs in the near future. AT&T and Verizon have been testing 5G in a number of controlled sites, with plans to roll out more trials over the next 10 years.

While Qualcomm’s successful test wasn’t the first for wireless carriers, it focused highly on both power and constraints of a smartphone. The test reached gigabit speeds, but won’t hit 5G speeds until full 5G deployments are completed.

[Also: 5 steps to transform the digital experience in healthcare]

The company’s 2019 timeline is aggressive with its planned offerings of 5G-enable handsets. But once these networks take off, it will provide a necessary platform for the healthcare industry’s IoT and medical devices.

What makes 5G superior

It’s important to note that 5G isn’t just an extension of 3G and 4G networks. The tech is rather a network that combines 4G, Wi-Fi, wireless access technologies and millimeter wave. It also leverages cloud infrastructure, intelligent edge services and virtualized network core.

What’s interesting is 5G’s use of a computing model that pulls insights from data with billions of devices.

[Also: Clinical cognitive science is healthcare’s new tipping point]

“Four factors distinguish 5G from its predecessors: connected devices, fast and intelligent networks, back-end services and extremely low latency,” according to a report by the Center for Technology Innovation at Brookings’ Founding Director Darrell West. “These qualities enable a fully connected and interactive world with a variety of applications.”

By 2020, the 5G network will support more than 20 billion connected devices, 212 billion connected sensors and enable access to 44 zettabytes of data gathered from a wide range of devices from smartphones to remote monitoring devices, the report found.

Further, “researchers estimate that this connected ecosystem will make it possible to utilize a much larger percentage of digital data (35 percent) than before (5 percent).”

Where 5G fits into healthcare

The technology opens the door to planned healthcare models like value-based care, which will be propelled by 5G’s connections: massive multiple input multiple outputs and signal amplitude.

These are crucial to achieving the necessary data speed and capacity demands for IoT devices. And that power will be imperative to support the healthcare landscape as it moves into a more consumer-centric, value-based care model.

“Cellular, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth will enable IoT communications across use cases and 5G is the network that will connect these things,” West wrote. “IoT devices are going to have varying capabilities and data demands and the 5G network needs to support them all.”

“With the internet of things, we are going to see services that only need a tiny amount of data and a long battery life as well devices that require fast speeds and reliable connectivity,” he continued.

Adding to the need for 5G is the increase of wearable technology and the need for solid battery-life and security for those devices.

“The phrase that most pithily captures the impact of 5G within the healthcare sector is the ‘personalization of healthcare,’” according to the authors of a recent report from the Haas School of Business, U.C. Berkeley.

“The much greater ability to continuously gather patient-specific data and the ability to process, analyze and quickly return processed information and recommended courses of action to the patient will give patients greater ability to manage conditions on their own,” the authors continued.

For example, the report found that 5G will better support continuous monitoring and processing sensory devices, which will support the continuous monitoring of patients. The tech will “substantially increase the effectiveness of preventative care.”

Predictive analytics will also improve under 5G through the growth of continuous monitoring. While 5G’s ability to continuously monitor data will develop new data streams, it will also use distributed computing to power analytics and intelligent care.

5G on the horizon

The technology isn’t quite ready to be harnessed, but by 2019 the first vendors plan to bring this technology to its full potential.

In fact, an IHS Market report found that sales to enable 5G tech will reach over $1.1 trillion in the global healthcare market by 2035, which represents over nine percent or $12.3 trillion of the global 5G economy in that year.

The impact “is roughly equivalent to adding an economy the size of India to the present global economy.” Further, value chain associated with 5G will be about $3.5 trillion in output, with an added 22 million jobs around the globe, according to the report.

To get there, it will take more than fully harnessing the tech.

The industry has begun to shift into outcome-based models of care, but governmental policy changes will help speed up the process: things like taxation and policies to incentivize providers.

Policies also need to change toward innovation and intellectual property to ensure 5G developers are compensated accordingly.

“Public policy can also affect the realization of the potential benefits discussed above by affecting the incentives to deploy the technology,” the report authors wrote. “Public policy that allows or incentivizes existing actors within the healthcare sector to resist change will reduce the actual benefits that are realized from 5G.”

“Conversely, public policy that encourages or incentivizes organizational changes that are responsive to technological changes will help in achieving large potential benefits,” the authors continued.

The report suggests that 5G should be embedded into standards, while there should not be competing and mutually incompatible versions of the tech: “devices that follow standards allow for interoperability and compatibility.”

Collaboration is the last component to ensure 5G reaches its full potential, according to a recent Ericsson study. Not just within the healthcare sector, but with major innovators like Microsoft, Google and Apple.

In addition, healthcare providers can improve its own connectivity by partnering with medical device vendors to develop wearable technology that can connect without the use of the patient’s smartphone.

“The key challenge going forward is to expand technological opportunities and make 5G and the health internet of things a reality and not just a hope,” wrote West.

To West, there are a number of steps needed to advance 5G in healthcare: infrastructure development; spectrum harmonization; adequate technical standards; effective regulation; and changes in reimbursement policy, privacy protection, and research data.

“To ensure all of this becomes a reality, though, work needs to be done to facilitate an end-to-end system,” West wrote. “Devices must connect to networks and the cloud in ways that are interoperable and secure. That will enable health providers and patients to receive the benefits of digital innovation for wellness and healthcare.”

“If we can overcome these barriers, both healthcare consumers and providers will see substantial advances in medical treatment,” he added.

Twitter: @JessieFDavis
Email the writer: jessica.davis@himssmedia.com